Like the Arnolds of TV’s “The Wonder Years,” my father’s family had a home movie camera. Beginning around 1946, birthdays, weddings, vacations, and other happenings would not escape the eye of the Super 8. There are hours of footage through the generations – a blur of beehives, bellbottoms, and bad facial hair.
Some of the most fascinating footage was shot by my great uncle Bob Underhill. In 1955, on a side trip from a Florida vacation, he and some friends made the quick flight into Havana. The pictures you’ll see are of the Cuba of Fulgencio Battista, before the Castro revolution and subsequent American trade embargo. I’ve added a little music to spice it up, but I think you’ll enjoy the images of people dancing at a festival, old ads for American businesses (keep an eye out for Little Lulu), the Florida-Havana Railroad Ferry, and lumbering 1940s and 50s autos probably still in operation today. And yes there is a cockfight.
The final Underhill family home movie, of a birthday party for my brother and me, was shot in 1988; by then VHS had easily supplanted film as the go-to choice for home movies. Since the advent of VHS up through today’s proliferation of tiny video cameras and phones, family home movies have expanded in length and added audio. In the process they’ve become brutally unwatchable. True, a Super 8 home movie of junior’s sixth birthday isn’t winning any Oscars, but the economy of available film in those days meant the director had to pick and choose his moments: an open gift here, a grandma waving there, a quick shot of Mt. Rushmore or the Space Needle on a trip out west. The lack of sound was also a plus – with no pressure on subjects to say something important, no unimportant rambling is endured. The spectacle itself was paramount. And in some cases the spectacle goes beyond simple family events and gives us a window into history.